It was colder than expected.
The boy walking across the deserted docking area didn't feel much beyond a mild sense of discomfort; his eyes were dull, as if he were only half present in the world around him.
The lack of lighting made it hard to see, but his breath was visible in front of him, a puff of warm air that quivered as if the cold troubled it. There was the sound of water lapping against the dock - the edge of the platform he walked across was close.
He was shaking. "I… I don't…"
The sentence was never finished. With a last shudder, the boy shut his eyes, and strode forward firmly, off the edge of the dock.
The water closed over his head, and he sank down without resisting.
It felt like someone was following him.
Hikaru glanced back over his shoulder without bothering to stop first. Since he'd gotten off the subway, there had been a shadow hanging around just at the edge of his sight. But there wasn't anyone there when he turned around, and he didn't hear any footsteps.
It still seems like there's someone there.
He frowned, but turned back. No point worrying about it - he was almost home anyway, and then it probably wouldn't matter.
It was Friday night. He'd won his first Ooteai match of April just yesterday, and the study session was tomorrow. That night had just been a friendly get-together at Waya's, a belated celebration - well, kind of celebration - of Nase and Komiya's passing the pro exam. It was probably more for an excuse to get together at the same time than anything, but it was fun anyway.
At least he's actually got furniture there now. Sort of. Hikaru brought to mind the plastic blow-up chairs Waya chose to call 'furniture' and couldn't help grinning. But it's better than the floor.
The stupid shadow was still there. What is that, anyway? Hikaru let out an annoyed breath, whipping his head around quickly to see if he could catch some stalker in the act. It didn't look like anyone else was around, but it sure felt like it. "Man…" he muttered under his breath, turning back around and making some show of just not caring, to cover his discomfort.
It was cold for April. Hikaru had gone with a thin shirt since the weather seemed all right, and now he was paying for it. The hair on his arms was starting to stand up; he rubbed at them and sped up a bit. Well, I'm almost home.
There was a sort of irrational tingly fear squirming its way into his thoughts, and even while he told himself it was ridiculous, he couldn't seem to shake it. It was dark and cold, and way too quiet, especially around the park.
And even with all the other shadows lingering around in the dark, the one that kept catching his attention but eluding his eyes still managed to seem distinct somehow.
He wound up jogging down his street and up to his front door - his pride wouldn't let him actually run - and even while he did, that shadow wouldn't let up. Well, now I don't have to worry about it. Hikaru let out a breath, and opened the door, feeling much more secure inside the lighted hallway. I was probably just being stupid anyway. "I'm home!" he called out, sliding out of his shoes.
"Welcome back!" his mother called from the kitchen. "I saved you some dinner if you want it."
The shadow slid from his mind as a tempting sort of smell assaulted his senses instead. "Yeah, thanks!"
Thoughts of stalkers and shadows and dark, cold streets seemed far away just then.
He saw it again when he was brushing his teeth.
It wasn't even really a shadow, now that he thought about it. More like someone standing right behind him - someone he couldn't see, but who was just sort of there in the corner of his eye. He wasn't even sure what he was seeing, just that there was a presence there.
In the outside, where it was dark, it had seemed like a shadow.
In the bathroom, where there wasn't supposed to be anyone else… it was creepy.
I would've seen him in the mirror, wouldn't I? Hikaru glanced quickly over his shoulder, found nothing there, and whipped his head around to look into the mirror again. There was a sort of flicker at the edge, like someone stepping out of the way.
Except no one was there.
Hikaru spat the toothpaste out of his mouth and took in a long, slow breath. He wouldn't have thought of it four years ago, but having a presence there made him think of it now. A ghost?
Sai. The thought leapt right into his head, first thing - and then jumped back out again almost at the same second. Sai would've said something. I'd be able to see Sai. He wouldn't just be a shadow behind me.
And he wouldn't make the air feel so cold. His pajamas weren't that light, but he was shivering anyway.
Nothing answered him, and the shadow was gone.
Hikaru rinsed his mouth out quickly and retreated back into his room. If it really was a ghost, that wouldn't help, but he felt more secure with the covers around him.
If it's not Sai, what kind of ghost could it be?
Saturdays, Hikaru always slept in.
Even with a ghost on his mind from the night before, he couldn’t break the habit he'd formed since he'd finished junior high school. By the time he woke up, the room was well-lit, and the shivery almost-fear from the night before seemed silly.
I'm probably just being paranoid. Why would a ghost haunt me, if it's not Sai? He pushed the covers aside, determined to forget about that brief incident, and got up to root through his drawers for something that was clean. I should stop thinking about ghosts so much.
Except for one, of course. Sai was always going to be in his thoughts.
It was still kind of chilly, so Hikaru tossed his pajamas aside and pulled on a sweatshirt and a pair of jeans. I've got Morishita-sensei's study session today - I shouldn't let myself get distracted, or I'll hear about it from him.
"Mom! Is breakfast ready?"
It was kind of a redundant question - Hikaru could smell the meal even as he started down the stairs; when the kitchen table came into his line of vision, he could see his father sitting with the newspaper and his plate.
"Yes, just a minute - I'll make you a plate."
"Morning, Hikaru," his father greeted him, without taking his eyes from the paper.
"Morning." He slid into his seat, propping his head up on one hand as he waited for the food. Everything was normal, and it made him feel progressively more secure. I guess it was just my imagination after all. Maybe I'm too eager to see ghosts everywhere.
That opinion managed to hold out all the way through breakfast.
Hikaru didn't spend every morning playing, but he was willing to admit that the Go board sitting at the center of his room got a lot of use during the day. He never went a full day - when he wasn't at an away game - without using it for at least a couple of hours. After all, he couldn't afford to slack off, being Touya's rival. There were still the remnants of that gap between them to close, and Touya was always going to be a couple of dan-level above him.
At least until they got up to 9-dan. Although he didn't doubt that Touya could take Jyudan one day.
And I'll be right there beside you when you do it. I'll take my own titles - just watch me!
That morning, he wanted to work on his Go - even with the study session that afternoon.
Still, as he was kneeling down, he wasn't expecting to see that same flicker of a presence behind him that had made him so nervous the night before. It was just a glimpse of darkness, more visible now that it was light out - and even through the sweatshirt, it made him shiver.
Seconds ago, he'd been comfortably warm.
Hikaru made an irritated noise at the back of his throat, and lifted the bowls from his board, resolutely. "Fine then, hang around if you want," he told the whatever-it-was, shutting his eyes for a moment and frowning. "I'll just ignore you anyway."
All right. I don't care. He pushed that thought away and dug his hand into the black stones, taking one out and firmly placing in on the board. Even if it was a ghost, he was used to that, right? This wasn't going to freak him out.
And while he was playing, his mind was on the game - not whatever was hanging around behind him.
By the time he arrived at the study session, Hikaru felt he'd mastered the art of ignoring whatever anonymous thing was lurking around in his shadow. If it wanted to hang around and watch him do stuff, fine. It wasn’t like it had tried to talk to him, so he couldn't be bothered to pay attention to it.
It was kind of annoying when he remembered that it was there, though.
Why is it haunting me, anyway? What does it want?
There had to be a reason. But if it wasn't going to talk, he wasn’t going to find out, was he? Hikaru pressed the button to get an elevator going up, unsettled somehow and trying to cover it with anger. "Stupid thing."
"What'd you just say? Was that about me?" Someone punched him in the shoulder.
"Ow!" Hikaru rubbed the assaulted shoulder and glared over at the taller boy who'd suddenly materialized beside him. "Where'd you come from?"
"Hello to you too." Waya grinned, unrepentant, and followed him onto the elevator when it arrived. "I said your name a few times, but you must've been thinking hard about something. What's on your mind?"
"Nothing. I thought someone was following me home last night." It was better than explaining the truth. People would think he was going crazy if he said a ghost was probably haunting him. "It was probably just my imagination."
"Yeah, right. Why would anyone want to stalk you?" His friend shrugged, not losing the careless grin. "Or maybe it was your last opponent, trying to get revenge for the indignity of losing to someone five dan levels below him."
"I've beat people who were higher dan than him," Hikaru pointed out, crossing his arms again. "Anyway, he wasn't that pissed."
"Yeah, that's why he was using Ochi's favorite losing stall for half an hour after the game ended." Waya stepped off the elevator before the doors had totally finished opening. "Not that it gets much use anyway - I guess they can share."
"Yeah, Ochi's been winning a lot." The talk about bathrooms reminded him that he hadn't bothered to use his before leaving the house. There was still that whole 'mirror' thing from the night before to think about - it was just weird, that was all. "That reminds me, I have to use the bathroom before we go in. I'll see you in there, all right?"
"Sure." Waya shrugged, moving on ahead as Hikaru changed directions.
Not surprisingly, the washroom was deserted. It always seemed to be on Saturdays, if there wasn't anything going on over the weekend. The silence made him a bit edgy, so he tried to be quick.
Which stall was it that Ochi always uses? Hikaru distracted himself while he was washing his hands by trying to remember. Is he even that choosy, or is Waya just kidding around? He couldn't bring it to mind, so maybe that was the case. Ochi was pretty weird, but his bathroom habit wasn't that bad.
Or maybe I'm being too generous. Hikaru grinned to himself, then glanced up at the mirror.
And saw Ochi himself staring back at him from the reflection.
"Ah - Ochi? I didn't hear you - " The words died as he spun around.
He was still alone - the bathroom was empty.
Hikaru turned back to the mirror quickly. He was mostly expecting Ochi's image to be gone, so the fact that the reflection was still there made him start, and his skin prickled. He turned again, heartbeat raising to the point where he could hear it pound hard and fast against his chest, but still there was no one behind him. And in the mirror, the reflection was as clear as anything.
What - What is this!? Ochi?
He stared back at the image, tongue frozen in his mouth and starting to feel more than just vaguely creeped out. The shorter pro met his gaze, and Hikaru swallowed, feeling like he might be sick. Those were definitely not Ochi's eyes. There was a wrongness in them - a kind of not-quite-rational look.
Like he was looking at someone who wasn't right in the head, and couldn't hide it.
Ochi smiled then, and it didn't look like any sort of smile Hikaru had ever seen on his face.
He bolted for the exit without bothering to dry his hands first, shoving his way through and twisting around so he could scramble away from the bathroom without having his back to it. The idea of being near the place - near where he'd seen that thing in the mirror - was enough to make his skin crawl. Hikaru leaned against the wall and stared back at the door as if something might come oozing out the bottom of it, shivering all over and not just from the coldness around him. There was more than just that thin prickle of fear from before; somehow, even just remembering those eyes was enough to make him feel bile rising at the back of his throat.
What the hell was that? That was Ochi! But -
But it wasn't Ochi. It wasn't anything he wanted to look at again, either.
Hikaru wrapped his fingers around his arms and shut his eyes tightly, not able or willing to control his shuddering yet.
Whatever it was, this thing wasn't going to be something he could just ignore.
I won't look into any mirrors any more. That's all. I won't look. Hikaru stared down at the sink in the bathroom as he washed his hands, determined not to look up. And if I do have to look, I'll just look at me. Not at - that.
He shut his eyes against another shudder. The look he'd seen in Ochi's - but not Ochi's - eyes was still clear in his mind. There was something so wrong about it - the way that gaze had fixed on him. Whatever that thing was, there was no way it was sane.
The prospect of being haunted by an insane ghost wasn't that pleasant.
I won't look at it. I won't pay attention to it. It can't do anything to me if I just ignore it, right?
Sai had been able to do plenty.
But this ghost isn't Sai! Hikaru felt his hands shake, and firmly clenched them into fists. I can't see it outside of mirrors, and it doesn't talk to me - it probably can't do anything to me either. Right?
He didn't have anyone to answer that for him.
The water rising up to his wrists was what called his attention back. Ah - crap! When did I plug up the drain? He pulled his hands out, and then braced them against the counter, fighting a moment of disorientation. Wait - what - ?
The ripples had cleared by the time he managed to get hold of himself again; Hikaru stared blankly down at the water, barely registering the fact that, beyond where his own reflection stared back at him waveringly, another hovered in the background - one that looked like -
He pulled away and scrambled back two quick steps, only stopping when he found his back pressed against the wall and pressing his now badly-shaking hands against his eyes. Ochi had been bad enough, but this…
Sai… It looked like Sai.
Hikaru let his knees fold and sank back against the wall, still covering his eyes. The water felt too cold against his skin, but he didn't want to move his hands away yet.
It made the sink plug up. It made it plug up, and then it made me look.
When he did finally move his hands, it was to press them against his stomach. The sick feeling didn't leave him for a long, long time, and for the first time he could remember, he wished he could just throw up.
"Thank you for the game." Akira inclined his head forward, more from habit than anything - Shindou probably didn't mind if he did or didn't.
Especially not just then. His opponent didn't even seem entirely present at the moment.
"Shindou, are you all right?"
The look in his eyes when Shindou turned his gaze upward made Akira think of an animal that wasn't sure if it should bolt or fight. He didn't look like he'd been sleeping well, either. "I'm fine, let's play again." His voice sounded funny - nervous when it had no right to be, and trying to make itself sound normal. "I'll nigiri, okay?"
Akira frowned at him for a moment, then checked his watch. "It's almost seven. We have to close up - I told Ichikawa-san we'd only be another hour." He closed the lid on the bowl of white stones and sighed. Their voices sounded unnaturally loud in the empty Go Salon, and it only made Shindou's obvious anxiety seem worse. "Not that I object to playing you, but why so many games?"
There was a definitely tenseness in the way Shindou was holding himself; his eyes darted to one side and he shivered a bit, as if the temperature weren't quite high enough for him. Why is he cold? It's warm enough in here, and he's wearing a heavier shirt than I am. "I - I just want to play. Can we go somewhere else? I'm sure I'll beat you this time!"
He was really trying to sound normal - Akira had to give him that. It wasn't quite working, though. "Is something the matter?"
"Nothing's the matter. I'm fine. Hey, you want to spend the night at my place?" Once again, he got that weird eye-darting motion, as if the shorter boy were trying to catch sight of something behind him. "We could keep playing that way."
The offer made Akira pause - it was more than strange for his rival to invite him over without some sort of reason, considering the nature of their relationship. Inviting someone to spend the night just because was the sort of thing a person did with a close friend, and he wasn't sure if 'close friend' was what he would call Shindou. Or what Shindou would call him. The things they did together outside of Go seemed limited to brief lunch breaks, sometimes dinner when they wanted to continue discussing a match after the Go Salon closed - if they even made it to closing - or a walk to the subway station together. And from the twitchy behavior, Akira was fairly confidant that whatever his reasons for asking, Shindou wasn't motivated by a desire for his presence.
But it still made him feel that odd warm tingling he found himself suppressing so often around his rival, all the same. Akira didn't care to dwell on his emotions, especially not unspeakable and almost certainly hopeless ones like feelings for another boy. However little Shindou might crave his presence, he certainly craved Shindou's. It had been something he'd fought with before, but in that, he had been forced to resign. Even with dark circles under his eyes and that wary, tense manner he'd developed, Shindou was a sight he wanted to drink in until he drowned in it.
Spending the night with him could only result in embarrassment.
"I have an early game," he excused himself. "It wouldn't be a good idea."
Shindou's shoulders slumped, and he let out a low, shaky breath, running a hand through his hair and not looking at Akira. "I wouldn't make you stay up late or anything," he protested, with the half-hearted tone that a person would use when they understood already that further discussion wouldn't help their case.
Yes, you would. You might not intend to, but you would. Akira had to carefully steer his thoughts away from how it might feel to run his own fingers through Shindou's short, soft-looking hair. "I'd rather not risk it." He stood, setting his bowl back on the board. "We should get going, then - it's late enough already."
"I guess. Are you sure we can't play one more game?" Shindou was quick to copy him - there was a sort of desperation in his eyes when he met Akira's gaze again. "We could go somewhere else - only for a short while. I mean… ah, never mind." At the last minute, he turned his face away, scratching at the back of his head in embarrassment. "I - just… that is…"
A fractional shimmer of hope was slinking in past Akira's defenses, despite his best efforts. "We could play somewhere else," he agreed. At the moment, nothing sounded better than a game with Shindou. And his nervousness - is that because…? No. Akira squashed that thought before it could spell out its meaning for him. It would be better not to think about that. It was enough that Shindou was so anxious to play him.
"Great!" That, at least, seemed to brighten Shindou up, although he looked more relieved than pleased. "Where do you want to go?"
"It was your idea to play," Akira reminded him, carefully shutting off the light switches. "You decide. Go outside while you think about it, so I can turn on the alarm."
"Wha - you…!" He could feel Shindou glaring at his back. "Don't order me around! Just because you win a few times…"
"Most times," Akira corrected him coolly.
"I won twice so far this week!"
"Out of six games. I have to set the alarm, Shindou - please go outside and wait for me."
He could hear the other boy let out a short, frustrated breath, and then, "Fine, hurry up." The footsteps following were deliberately heavy.
Akira set the alarm.
Shindou had his back to the sliding glass doors and didn't look over his shoulder even as Akira locked them. "Let's go for dinner," he said, in a much more conciliatory tone than that of two minutes previous.
Akira put away the keys and turned around. His rival's shoulders were visibly tense. "I thought you wanted to play another game."
"Let's go for dinner and then play."
Biting back a sigh - he was never going to understand Shindou's thought process - Akira gave in. "As long as you eat quickly - remember that I have to be home early."
"Yeah, yeah, I will," Shindou agreed impatiently, and moved ahead of him, as if he couldn't wait to get away from the building. "Come on."
There was something not quite right about the way he was acting. Akira could tell that he was off - but he wasn't entirely sure how, exactly. Shindou's concentration wasn't suffering - if anything, it seemed like he was more focussed on the game. Almost desperately so, as if he wanted to lose himself in playing and avoid thinking about whatever was bothering him.
Maybe that was it.
Akira wasn't sure how he should ask about what was wrong without having Shindou snap back that he was fine and tell him to stop asking already because it was annoying as hell. He had a feeling it might be impossible.
I suppose I'll just have to wait until he decides to tell me.
Assuming he decided to tell him at all.
Avoiding mirrors had become almost like a habit.
Hikaru hadn't seem much more than passing glimpses of his reflection for the past two days, and every time he did look, there was another reflection in there with it. He'd gotten used to it, having Waya or Isumi or even just the people he played in his league matches standing there behind him, or off to the side.
It was creepy as hell, and he didn't look it in the eye if he could help it, but even avoiding the thing didn't make him feel any better. The incident with the sink was still very clear in his mind, and the constant sense of presence kept him from being able to relax.
It can make stuff happen. It can do things to me.
The thought scared him. It seemed like he was always afraid now when he was alone, because if it was just the ghost and him, what would it do? How much could it do? Could it take over his mind? Maybe that was what it was building up to - trying to possess him. But why hadn't it done it already? Did it need to drive him crazy first?
If that was the case, it was well on its way to succeeding.
It was worse at night than during the day. Hikaru sat in front of the Go board in his room, carefully recreating a game of Touya's from earlier that week. He replayed Touya's games often, in between Sai's and more of the higher-dan players. It made him feel less alone, because he was familiar enough with Touya's playing style that playing out his games made it seem almost like he was there. With the sky already dark and the house quiet, he needed company - or something like it - very badly just then.
It helped to play Go, and it helped even more to play one of Touya's games. Hikaru placed another stone, the firm clicking noise sounding louder than usual in the middle of the late-night silence. It was comforting rather than creepy, a thin sound in an atmosphere saturated with a heavy quiet. It made him think of playing against an opponent who was really there, when everything outside of the game was blocked out and all he could hear were the stones being placed.
If it were me in this situation with Touya, I would've played up here instead of this… He placed Touya's next black stone, quickly surveying the new situation. He's focused too much on the lower left - Touya controls the center, that's why there wouldn't have been any point in taking it into yose.
Two more hands, and he reached the point where Touya's opponent had resigned. It would've been at least a 4 moku win.
I wouldn't have let you get that much. Hikaru smiled to himself, gathering up the stones. I could've disrupted your shape, even in that situation; you left enough openings. He'd save that up for tomorrow, when he saw Touya again.
Good - then…
He set the bowls back onto the board, leaned back - and felt the cold air tickling his skin again. It made him shiver, even through the thick pajama top. Is that the ghost, or is it just cold?
Hikaru honestly couldn't tell any more.
That sense of someone lurking behind him was always just there. He was getting used to it, in a way, although getting used to it didn't make it any easier to deal with. It was like having someone look over his shoulder at whatever he was doing - a sense of someone breathing down his neck without the actual physical 'breathing down the neck' part.
And he couldn't get the not-quite-sane look in its eyes out of his head, no matter how hard he tried. It was like they'd burned straight through into his brain and left a smoking imprint.
Hikaru shivered again. I guess I should try and sleep now… Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't; he was exhausted, but still thinking way too hard to drift off.
I'll try anyway. He stood, ready to flick out the lights and bury himself in the covers.
And then to his left, coming from the wall by the door, there was an odd grinding noise - like someone whittling away at a block of wood.
Oh, crap - don't look! Don't look…
Fear jumped up to rest somewhere at the back of his throat; Hikaru had to think about swallowing. He stood rigidly for a moment, rooted to the spot, heart pounding hard as the slow carving noise continued behind him.
It was too hard to just ignore it. Slowly, with his skin prickling and his entire body tensed up as if getting ready to run, he turned to face the wall.
And, predictably, wished that he hadn't.
As if someone had taken a chisel and was methodically carving onto the wall, lines were forming purposefully, accompanied by that slow grinding and showers of chips from the paint and the wall itself that fluttered to the ground and settled into a steadily growing pile.
Hikaru shut his eyes quickly and turned his face away, feeling the beat of his own heart through his chest as its pounding rose up to speed levels he didn't know it could reach.
Ignore it. Just keep ignoring it. Just turn out the light and go to bed, and ignore it.
Unfortunately, the light switch was on the wall currently being vandalized.
Hikaru opened his eyes.
The carving stopped.
Directly in front of him, too large to be ignored, was the kanji for 'hikaru'.
Abandoning pride - who was going to see it anyway? - Hikaru all but dove into bed without bothering to turn the light out first and pulled the covers over his head, listening to his own erratic breathing and trying to concentrate on the harsh pounding at his chest.
There wasn't going to be any sleep for him tonight.
There had to be something about it.
Hikaru stared at the symbol he'd sketched out. It was a perfectly ordinary symbol - people used it when they were talking about light 'hikaru' and not his name 'Hikaru'. But why did this ghost carve it onto his bedroom wall? Was it supposed to mean something? Or was it just the ghost's way of spelling his name? Did it hear people call him 'Hikaru' and figure that it was just like the word? Did it want something with 'light' or 'standing out'? What was it after? What was carving a word no one else could see onto his wall supposed to accomplish?
Besides completely freaking me out. He frowned, eyebrows coming down automatically, and let out a short, frustrated breath. It was easier to be irritated in the break room at the Go Institute when it was light out and there were other people around and he had a match to think about. Thinking about the symbol wasn't half as frightening as it was when he was at home late at night, and it was being carved into his wall by nothing at all.
There wasn't anything on that wall now. By some miracle, he'd managed to sleep, and when he'd woken up, the kanji was gone. But whatever was haunting him had done it again - written it on the bathroom wall with something like paint - while he stared at the sink and trying to brush his teeth like nothing was happening.
And mom and dad don't notice a thing.
Hikaru was starting to wonder if maybe he really was going crazy, and these were all hallucinations. No one else saw them but him - how could he even prove they were really happening?
There was a cold draft brushing along the back of his neck, and he shivered again, involuntarily.
It's always cold…
"What are you doing, Shindou? Spacing out?"
Hikaru jerked a bit in his seat, caught too deep in his thoughts to notice the person who'd sat down next to him. "Oh - Waya." He leaned against the back of his chair, letting his arms hang limply. "Just thinking."
"Not about your match - the way that's going, all you've got to worry about it how long it takes your opponent to resign." Waya grinned, then looked down at the paper in front of him and raised an eyebrow. "'Light'? Or are you looking for another way to spell your name?"
Hikaru let out a breath, feeling the air leave his lungs as if pushing all the substance out of him. "I'm not sure."
"Not sure?" The older boy looked puzzled and a little annoyed. "What's that supposed to mean?"
It means I'm being haunted by a ghost who leaves ambiguous messages on the wall, that's what. Hikaru scowled at the paper. "I think it's a trick or something."
Waya snorted. "You're pretty weird sometimes, Shindou. Come on" - he added that last bit with another quick grin, and clapped a hand on the shorter boy's shoulder - "let's head back."
Hikaru pushed his chair away from the table and got up, leaving his paper on the table behind him. It wasn't like staring at it was going to help him figure anything out - he wasn't good with hidden meanings anyway. There wasn't much chance he could do this.
Which meant he wasn't going to figure out what the ghost wanted.
Which meant it was probably going to keep haunting him.
In the faint reflection the window provided as he and Waya walked by it, a second Waya hovered near Hikaru's back. He was looking at the window as well; when he caught Hikaru's gaze - just for that brief moment - he smiled.
Hikaru shuddered, squeezing his eyes shut and looking away quickly.
This has to stop - I can't live like this! I've got to get someone to help me.
The problem was… who would believe him?
Akira had a feeling he looked as if he were staring at an alien life form. He couldn't help it, though - his fingers had stilled in the act of cleaning the stones from the board, and he couldn't keep himself from fixing the person hovering anxiously beside him with an incredulous gaze.
"Could you repeat that for me, please, Shindou?"
His rival frowned, but the irritation on his face was robbed of its usual expressive edge by the bags and dark circles under his eyes and the nervous way he kept shifting in place. His gaze still darted over his shoulder every so often, nervously, and there was an almost desperate glint in there that didn't look good. To put it bluntly, Shindou looked like hell. "I didn't come here to play you. Does everything we do have to be about Go?"
This was unexpected. Akira put away the stones carefully, trying not to seem overly surprised. "If you didn't come to play, then why are you here?"
Shindou shifted again, staring down at the board now with apparent fascination. "I want to tell you something," he mumbled, rubbing the back of his neck as if he were uncomfortable saying it.
"Tell me something?" Immediately, several possibilities leapt to Akira's mind, causing as many mixed emotions. Fear - He doesn't want to play me any more? Hope - He's gay, and I have a chance? Anticipation…
He's going to tell me the secret behind Sai?
"Yeah." Shindou shifted again, and his gaze appealed to Akira for understanding. "Can we go somewhere we can talk without so many people around?"
There wasn't much chance to answer. Kitajima, who didn't like Shindou much in the first place, bristled in the seat next to Akira. "What's so important that you can't say it around us?" He squinted at Shindou. "Always think you're so high and mighty…"
"Kitajima-san…" Ichikawa set down the tea she'd promised, waving a hand at the older man and shooting a questioning look at Akira. "Do you still want this, or are you going out?"
"I think" - A glance showed Shindou watching him anxiously - "I'm going out. I'll be back later, though." He stood, moving around the board to follow Shindou out of the salon.
Two out of three odds, this was something he wanted to hear about.
"Where are we going?" he asked, as the sliding doors closed behind them.
Shindou shrugged. The gaze he tossed back over his shoulder at Akira was tense, almost wary, and still held that nervous energy from before. "Let's walk for a while. Okay?"
"All right." This was more than a little strange. First he's inviting me to spend the night at his place, and then he just wants to walk around? It didn't seem to fit the definition of their relationship, these new developments. He and Shindou had a sub-section of friendship that they just called 'rivalry', which explained the constant fights if not the meals out and the time spent in each other's company. They didn't do things like normal friends would, because - for all intents and purposes - they weren't normal friends at all.
The street was typically crowded, and Shindou was quiet as they walked. Akira was more than just curious by this point, but it wouldn't do any good to ask about it - he'd said 'in private', after all, and 'in the middle of a crowded sidewalk' hardly counted as private.
Well, where does he expect to go for privacy, then?
"Here." Shindou broke up his thoughts suddenly by tugging him off the sidewalk, into a short alley with a dumpster at the back. "I don't think anyone will bother us here." He rubbed the back of his neck and looked away. "Anyway, if someone heard, they'd probably just think I was crazy."
Akira's interest - if it hadn't been caught before - was certainly entirely in his rival's possession by then. "What is this about, Shindou?"
The shorter boy let out a long breath, shot one last, nervous glance over his shoulder, and then seemed to draw himself up, as if gathering in his determination. "Okay. I'm ready for this. All right." He met Akira's gaze, eyes almost fierce, as if they were in the middle of a particularly intense battle on the go board. "Remember when I first met you, and we played our first game?"
It felt as if his heart suddenly jumped up into his throat. Akira held his breath for a moment, his skin prickling. He's going to tell me… what's behind him. How long had he wondered about this, wracked his brain trying to work out Shindou's secret? And here it was - he was going to hear this straight from the enigma itself. "Yes," he managed, after a minute, anticipation clogging his vocal cords and making it difficult to get the words out. "I remember."
Shindou swallowed hard, looked away for a moment, and then looked back, and his eyes stabbed in past Akira's already-weakened defenses. "The one who played that game… wasn't me."
There was a certain heaviness to those words that made Akira think they were important, even if they didn't make sense to him at the moment. He stared back at Shindou, too spellbound by his gaze and his tone to be incredulous or skeptical. "What do you mean?"
And how does this tie in with Sai? There were pieces of the puzzle in front of him now - less were missing, but he couldn't see yet how they all fit together.
"I was placing the stones, but I wasn't the one who decided where they went. I didn't even know how to play." It seemed like something had come loose in Shindou with that; he was almost rushing to say everything, as if he had a lot to get to yet. "Someone else told me where to play; that game was all his. His name was - " And then he hit a snag again; his breath caught for a moment, he looked away.
Akira held his breath. None of this made sense; how could someone tell him where to play? No one was there! He would have heard anyone else speak. But, somehow… He felt the answer was still waiting to be told.
"His name was - "
What? Akira wanted to scream; wanted to grab his rival's shoulders and shake the answer out of him. He wasn't sure how much of Shindou's stumbling he could take.
"His name was - " Shindou swallowed again, almost glared at Akira as if it would help him say the words, and went on. "Fujiwara no Sai."
Akira's mouth opened, but he wasn't sure he trusted himself to try and speak.
"That's who you played against. That's who you were chasing. That's who played you on the internet, too." Shindou seemed almost relieved to have gotten through that much of it. "I was the only one who knew his name until now." His eyes slid down and away from Akira's then, as if the wind had been taken out of him. There was a deep, lingering sadness there. "He was my teacher, and… my friend."
It felt like his thoughts were being sucked into an enormous whirlpool of Shindou's words. Akira shook his head, feeling as if he were moving too sluggishly, like in a dream. A million questions jumped to his lips, but only one made it out. "Who… was he? Fujiwara no Sai?"
"A Go player from the Heian era. Don't bother looking him up, though." A wry, humorless smile tugged at the down-turned corners of Shindou's mouth. "He's not in the history books. All of Shuusaku's games, though - those were his." He looked up again, and there was more desperation than determination there. "The same way my first games with you were his. Sai was a genius."
This doesn't make sense. It doesn't make any sense! Akira felt like pounding on the ground with his fists in frustration. "Heian? Shuusaku? How is that possible?" He felt his eyebrows come down and did nothing to stop the glare forming on his face. The urge to grab Shindou and shake him until he stopped talking in riddles was even worse than before. "What is all of this supposed to mean, Shindou?"
"He was a ghost, okay? Sai was a ghost!" Shindou's voice was starting to get as wild as his eyes; with the dark circles under them and the nervous edge to each of his movements, he bore a shocking resemblance to a complete lunatic. "He committed suicide back in his own time because he lost a game to someone who cheated and was banned from the capitol, and his spirit was trapped in a go board because he wanted to play more, and - "
"You're telling me I played against a ghost?" Akira burst out, unable to keep quiet any more. I can't believe he's saying this! How could it… How could it be…? "And all of Shuusaku's games - those were played by a ghost, too? That's your secret?"
"Yes! And it's true! Sai was real!" Shindou was getting angry too; in between the desperation and the nervousness, he could see all of the familiar signs. "I was the only one who could see him - I was the only one who ever knew he existed. And now you. I said I'd tell you someday, and I did. The least you could do is try to believe me!"
Akira swallowed another angry retort, letting out a long, slow breath and trying to get his emotions back under control. It was unbelievable - it had to be a lie. It couldn't be true. But…
It would answer every question. Every single one.
He shut his eyes, counted to ten, and then opened them again, to find the shorter boy watching him warily. There was the barest spark of hope in that expression, the desperation he'd seen before - that Shindou had to make Akira believe, somehow. It helped to calm him down, at least somewhat. "Where is Fujiwara no Sai now, then?" he asked, in an amazingly neutral voice.
The change in Shindou's expression was sudden and sharp; everything vanished in the face of that deep sadness Akira had seen before. Once again, his rival turned away from his gaze, hanging his head and slouching his shoulders as if in defeat. "He's gone." His voice was subdued, quiet - the kind of voice a person would use when talking about a family member or friend who had died.
Akira couldn't help but feel a slight chill at that. "What do you mean?"
"He disappeared. He tried to tell me he would, but - I didn't listen." There was a slight tremble in Shindou's voice then that betrayed hours of agonizing over that one point. "That was why I quit playing go, back then. I thought he'd come back if I didn't play my own games any more."
Something about that rang true. Akira took a step backward, profoundly disturbed by the way a part of him was starting to accept everything Shindou said. "I see."
The shorter boy shook his head suddenly, as if to clear it. "I said 'someday', and what I meant was 'far in the future', not today." He brought his face back up again, eyes full of the earlier determination. "I told you today because you're the only one who has a chance of believing me, and if you believe me about Sai, then maybe you'll also believe…" He swallowed and took in a few breaths, letting them out sharply and staring at Akira as if at an enemy he wanted to vanquish.
Akira wasn't sure which emotion to react to this with, so he just stared back blankly.
Shindou glanced behind him in another of those nervous gestures, and then drew himself up again and plunged onward. "There's another ghost. Not like Sai - I mean, more like what you'd think an actual ghost would be like. I can only see it in the mirror, and it doesn't talk, but…" He broke off, and a shudder went through his whole body; he shut his eyes and his expression twisted as if he might be sick. "The way it looks at me, it's horrible. And it's been doing things, like writing 'hikaru' on my wall, plugging up drains so I'll look into the water and see its reflection. It's…" He fumbled for words.
Akira stared at him mutely.
The desperation was back in Shindou's gaze now - more than anything else, that was what dominated his expression. "Touya. I need you to believe me. I can't take this on my own any more - I need help. I need you to - I need someone to help me. Please."
His feet were moving on their own; Akira's brain felt as if it were covered with a numbing fog. He took two more steps backward, feeling as if he were in a trance. "I don't… I don't know…"
"You've got to believe me!" Shindou's voice was getting shrill; he hurried forward and grabbed Akira's sleeve, looking even wilder than before. "I need you to help me! I can't handle this; I need you; please!" His breathing was harsh and ragged; his eyes were wide and almost fearful; his fingers were shaking against Akira's arm.
There was a part of Akira that wanted to give in, because this was Shindou. This was the person closest to him; the rival he'd chased after; the first person he'd fallen in love with; the person he was probably still in love with, even if he wasn't sure whether that person was crazy or not. Shindou was begging for his support, and all he had to do was offer it in order to give him peace of mind.
Akira turned away, finding it too difficult to look his rival in the eye right then. It's way too much. It… It couldn't be true - it's too unreal.
Shindou's fingers tightened on his shirt, almost convulsively. "You believe me about Sai at least, don't you?" His voice came very close to breaking. "Touya?" He didn't wait very long for an answer; it seemed like his nerves were too tightly strung to allow for much patience. "Touya! Answer me! You believe me about Sai! Right?"
"I need to think about this, Shindou." He couldn't quite get the words out in a normal voice, but the steady tone he managed amazed Akira.
He could feel the shudder that passed through the shorter boy's body, but didn't look up to see the expression on his face. When Shindou's fingers slackened against his shirt, Akira pulled free and turned to walk back out of the alley.
At the moment, he wasn't sure about his destination - but he was sure that he couldn't stand to be around Shindou for another minute.
 Actually, the kanji symbol I'm talking about is the one used for 'hikari' - a ray or beam of light. Hikari is a noun and hikaru is the verb, which means 'shine; glitter' or 'stand out'. My Japanese dictionary spelled hikaru with the kanji for hikari and a hiragana 'ru' symbol. Hikaru spells his name in katakana, which is mostly used for sounds or foreign words but also often for names. However, I saw it in a doujinshi once spelled with just the kanji for 'hikari'. This is what I meant here.